New Senator’s Flash Vanishes in Puff of Smoke : Politics: Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) wanted to make a splash, but brash behavior sinks his popularity with colleagues and constituents.


Talk about a political miscalculation.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) came to the nation’s capital determined to make a splash with his outspoken views against the Persian Gulf War, his unorthodox style, his liberal agenda and his flair for self-promotion.

Just two months later, the Wunderkind of Minnesota politics finds himself--like most freshman senators--on the cutting edge of irrelevancy in the country’s most exclusive club and plummeting in popularity in his home state.

“He has become an object of contempt, even for some who voted for him,” Dane Smith wrote in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Indeed, the latest Star Tribune-KSTP-TV Minnesota Poll found that a scant 35% approved of Wellstone’s performance.


Understandably for a freshman, Wellstone has had little impact on legislation since he has been here. The only bill he’s introduced deals with a private immigration matter.

Instead, Wellstone has made his mark on the publicity front. He has:

* Been branded a “chicken ----” by President Bush after he asked the President at a White House reception to tread cautiously in the Persian Gulf, according to a published report.

* Angered Vice President Dan Quayle during Wellstone’s Jan. 3 swearing-in ceremony by publicly handing him a videotape of a Minnesota town meeting where the Bush Administration’s war policies were criticized.

* Infuriated conservatives by saying he despises Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) because of his “racist politics.”

* Flouted Senate tradition by having former Vice President Walter F. Mondale introduce him at his swearing-in instead of Republican Dave Durenberger, Minnesota’s senior senator.

* Riled some Vietnam War vets by staging an anti-Persian Gulf War event in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


Wellstone’s flashy opposition to the war and his erroneous prediction that it would turn into a “mistake of catastrophic proportions,” haven’t been sitting well with many Minnesota voters.

But the man who ignored conventional political wisdom and pulled off the big surprise of the 1990 Senate races by unseating a well-financed incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, has no regrets for his stand.

“It is wonderful news that the war is over no matter what your position on the policy,” he said Feb. 26. “While I am pleased by the minimal loss of American lives, I am at the same time saddened by the tremendous loss of life suffered by the Iraqi people.”

Sure, he concedes, his war stand has abbreviated his Senate honeymoon. But the feisty, 5-foot-5 1/2-inch former wrestler, is moving on to the domestic issues he feels so passionately about: the environment, universal health care, a new energy policy, education, child care, Indian rights and campaign reform.

What remains to be seen is whether he can translate his abrasive, take-no-prisoners style of politics into legislative results in the I-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-my-back Senate.

A former professor at Minnesota’s Carlton College, Wellstone said he is eager to learn Senate procedures because they are important to getting things done.


But he said he has no intention of changing his tactics.

“I’m a rock-the-boat politician,” Wellstone said in an interview in his office.

To demonstrate his money is where his mouth is, Wellstone said he won’t accept honorariums and will decline political contributions of more than $100 once his campaign debt is paid.

Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a conservative Republican, predicted that Wellstone would change his ways.

“You can be highly partisan, get nothing done and cry yourself to sleep, or you can compromise,” Simpson said. “This ain’t no campaign.”

Wellstone has already banded with senators expected to be his natural allies in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, joining with Massachusetts Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry to urge aid to El Salvador be cut.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor, said Wellstone was “never a likely candidate to be a member of the club, but he faces the risk of being marginalized if he doesn’t attempt to temper his image.”

“It’s not so much that he is a liberal--it’s that he is unorthodox and brash,” Sabato said.


With his curly black hair, impish demeanor and strong resemblance to singer Paul Simon, the 46-year-old Wellstone looks more like an aging hippie than a distinguished solon as he roams the halls of the Capitol.

“Call me Paul,” he insists to a flabbergasted Senate page.

Wellstone’s informality and his fervor brought him spontaneous applause and a standing ovation from American Indians recently.

“I am not arrogant and there is much that I need to learn,” he told the Indians.

“I really believe in politics that empowers people, particularly people who have been excluded,” said Wellstone, who supported the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his 1988 presidential bid and was once arrested in a bank for demonstrating over farm foreclosures.

For some, Wellstone is a breath of fresh air in a place where tradition often reigns.

“He is one of the most interesting characters to come to Washington in the 18 years I have been here,” said Robert Beckel, a Democratic consultant who worked in Jimmy Carter’s White House.

With nearly six years remaining in his first term, Beckel said Wellstone has plenty of time to make up for any early mistakes.